‘Too complicated and private’ was the art historian and curator Catherine Lampert’s verdict on Lucian Freud’s life, predicting that it would ‘defy the psychoanalytic scope of modern biography’. She was writing in 2007 and is now working on a catalogue raisonné of Freud’s work. Lampert was stating what was generally believed: that Freud’s personal life was off limits. ‘If I talk too much it sickens me,’ he once said. Now we have William Feaver’s The Lives of Lucian Freud, the first volume of which takes us up to the late 1960s. It sets out the ‘complicated and private’ in detail and is dominated by the voice of Freud, who talks in an unbuttoned fashion. In large part based on conversations Feaver conducted with Freud from the 1970s until the painter’s death in 2011, his book is one of the most intimate biographies of an artist ever written. Not that there is huge competition, for visual artists have ways of protecting themselves. Tell-all biographies like Arianna Huffington’s Picasso: Creator and Destroyer or Sarah Jane Checkland’s Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of His Life and Art tend to be vulgarisations, full of unearned intimacy, in which the writer finds his or her subject flawed, usually morally.
But if Feaver’s book gets behind Freud’s legendary wall of privacy, presenting an oral history at the artist’s instigation, it is not a vulgarisation. His biography is full of pithy observations, with just enough historical and social background to open up individual paintings and drawings to analysis. Bypassing moral